For teams that decided last season that major changes were needed after failing to capture hockey's biggest prize, it comes as no surprise that teams who did a roster overhaul are struggling. Where wholesale changes were made, teams need to time to develop that chemistry and trust between players. When free agents are brought in, chemistry and trust need to be forged between former enemies, and that process takes time. All the talent that is amassed can't rush this process either. In fact, when more and more changes are made, chemistry is always the biggest factor when it comes to how a team works together.
While I'm not suggesting that a handful of free agents will disrupt a winning team entirely, there are numerous examples of how a major free agent signing can negatively affect a team despite the talent level of the player being brought in. And in this season's NHL, we have numerous examples of top-tier players being brought in as free agents and those teams that signed them suffering.
As an example, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek to bolster their blueline, entrenching them in the top-four of their defensive corps. Garnet Exelby was acquired via a trade, and it was though that the Leafs would be greatly improved with each players individual contributions as defensive defencemen.
The problem is that their defensive partners have to get used to playing with these new free agents. If they don't have time to develop that chemistry, there will be a lot of hesitation, confusion, and goals-against. Obviously, that will result in more losses than wins.
If you think about some of the better teams, they have defensive pairings that have played together for a long time. The Anaheim Ducks featured Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The Pittsburgh Penguins featured Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik. The Boston Bruins featured Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman. In all of those cases, the players have been paired together for more than one season. And each team has seen better success than the previous season. Why? Defensively, these players know each other's strengths and weaknesses.
The more a defensive pairing plays together, the more complementary they are in their abilities. Being a defenceman myself, I see this all the time. I play a more defensive game when paired with an offensive talent, and we complement each other nicely. Do you know why the Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s were so good? They had little turnover in their roster. They played together, and they knew each other. Do you know why the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s were so good? They had little turnover in their roster. They were together for 200+ days per year. That's how trust in one another and chemistry amongst your teammates is forged.
In looking at the standings thus far this season, those teams who made wholesale chanes - bringing in more than two defencemen to their top-six defence corps - are struggling:
- Toronto: three new defencemen - winless in eight games.
- Montreal: three new defencemen - four points in seven games.
- Vancouver: three new defencemen* - six points in seven games.
- Tampa Bay: four new defencemen - six points in seven games.
- Anaheim: three new defencemen - seven points in seven games.
Of all of those teams, Anaheim, Vancouver, and Montreal were expected to push for a playoff spot, yet they sit 12th, 13th, and 13th in their conferences respectively. Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference, and Toronto is the worst team statistically in the NHL thus far this season.
It takes time to build chemistry and trust, and these teams are still working on that. There's no doubt that they can still make the playoffs, and that's the good news. But if they don't start developing some chemistry and trust between their top defensive players, it could be a long season for the goalies behind them and the fans in the stands.
There aren't many businesses that can replace half of their top employees without seeing a dip in production. NHL franchises are the same way. Replacing three of six men who you rely on night-in and night-out will almost certainly guarantee some growing pains.
You would think that general managers would see the risk in this tactic, but the NHL is a "what have you done for me lately" business in most cases. In this case, that tactic almost guarantees that your team will struggle.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!